Ma Merveille

Years ago, I saw The New World on the recommendation of a friend. Here's a taste:

It was my first Malick film, and as much as I was awed by its external transcendence, its deeper substance really burrowed into me. I rented it, watched it, went to bed, and when I arose the next morning after a mostly-sleepless night, sat down to watch the whole thing again. I have tried to write about it, but could hardly even think about it except in waves of images and isolated thoughts, never coherent enough to string together. Though this is grossly over-simplistic, I will say that it is a story about hurt and healing. Healing triumphs, but in a devastatingly pyrrhic victory -- old wounds remain latent, sabotaging the future with poison from the past. Watching it uncovered deep layers of unsettled feelings, pain I had either forgotten or chosen to ignore.

I always come late to the most interesting conversations, especially where my friend Rod is concerned -- he who can create a niche market, document a paradigm shift and defend a worldview in the time it takes me to have one slightly original thought. But, in light of the above experience, I am finding the need to add to the dialogue of his recent musings (starting here, and continuing here and here) about Malick's latest film. To the Wonder.

I watched this one alone on a whim, and I liked it; especially the priest, who is the central character regardless of screentime. It didn't have the same effect right away. Some days later, I discovered my whole family was miffed at me because they had wanted to see it too. So we watched it together, and after the second viewing, we all started to think and talk about it -- a conversation that continued for several weeks. 

There is literally no way I can spoil the plot, because there is no plot, other than the general arc of a couple who falls in love in Paris and then tries to make their relationship last back in the United States. The ending is ambiguous and has already provoked several arguments. But this movie is not about the plot; it's about the details. There are three I keep coming back to.

Kinesis: as The Times reviewer mentioned, the female lead is constantly in motion. She spins, chases, flings her arms wide to embrace the heavens, all to an introspective French voiceover that sounds as italic as its subtitles look. She is lovely, and Malick's camerawork is masterful; every shot is frameable, every scene a living poem. It's surprising, then, that it rings so hollow. My mother pointed out that all the leaping and tumbling left the characters with nothing solid to hold on to -- searching for ground, they came up with only air. (Their house, which remains huge and unfurnished, is another indicator of their empty lives.)

Nature: like every other Malick film, this one shows a profound respect for, and unabashed adoration of, the natural world. Trees, beaches, gardens and fields all get the same breathless reverence. But this time, there is more: through the story of a priest who struggles with eternal questions, Malick shows us that even his own masterpieces are worthless to the extent that they don't acknowledge their ultimate creator. The tongues of men and angels, which few would argue he has mastered on film, are merely noise next to a heart of faith and a hand of mercy.

Place: A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are thousands of pictures in a film, so it stands to reason that there should be very little explanation necessary. Mercifully, Malick lets his shots speak for themselves. America is sun-kissed grass, Paris rain-dampened cobblestone. The Sonic drive-in glows just as the shimmering beaches of Mont-Saint-Michel do -- one wholesome, one exotic, both glorious. I was actually a little disappointed when I realized that La Merveille, The Wonder, is a physical place; I had first read that line as a metaphysical statement, about the power of love to transform a quotidian hour into an ethereal one.

It's this last idea that has stuck with me most since I saw the film. Without even meaning to, I often imagine my own life as Terrence Malick might see it. Entering my hushed classroom in the early morning, slowly raising the shades and looking out to the glorious fog-drenched expanse of trees below. Scattering grain to a feathery patchwork of black and gold. Standing in a darkened church, sweet harmony mingling with the dissonant cries of children. Entering the pantry to the pillowy-sweet scent of fresh apples, letting them cook in butter until the sugar runs a sticky amber. Climbing between clean, soft flannel sheets and yielding to the stillness of sleep.

Each day is full of moments like this. Sometimes I see them, and just as often I let them slip by unnoticed. But thanks to the magic of my own personal merveille, awakened by this lovely film, they are always there.

Soggy Sunday

It's raining and I am wearing all the wrong things. My sandals snap at my heels and kick up more water onto my sodden jeans. A scarf covers the top and back of my hair but the front drips into my eyes as I plod on with resolution. I am carrying a blue cloth bag that's mostly wet and a white plastic bag that drips water. I could have taken the train, but I already decided to walk and I don't like to change my mind.

I am carrying dinner, grilled zucchini in olive oil and thin spicy pepperoni and juicy marinated mushrooms. They were all out of bread by the time I got to the market but I am sure I can find some at home. There is lobster salad, too, sitting on ice inside an insulated bag that's about as wet as everything else in sight on the street. I think about being dry at home with dinner and a glass of wine and two warm furry bodies winding around my feet..

It's cold in the airport terminal as my clothing starts to dry on my body. I think about asking the girl next to me if she will watch my things while I go to get a coffee. I am on the verge of asking when I suddenly think, are you kidding me? You lost your driver's license at a concert a few weeks ago and still haven't replaced it, and now you're going to leave your passport and your phone in the hands of a stranger? I consider taking them with me and leaving just the bags, but in the end I pack up everything and leave my seat and the two outlets beneath it, and the loud group from Texas is moving toward them with greedy white phone chargers before I am fully standing.

I come back with my coffee and find a new seat and not five minutes later a man asks me to watch his things while he goes to check on his flight.  I say sure and smile at the small irony. A few minutes after that a worried face crouches in front of me.

"Excuse me," he says. "I know I don't know you."  I wait for the ", but."

"But did you just say you would watch that man's things?" 

"Yes," I say. I see where this is going but I won't give him the satisfaction of sympathy. 

He grimaces apologetically. "Do you know him?" 

"No," I say. "I don't know him." 

"I'm probably paranoid," he says, grimacing again. "But we're in an airport . . . " 

I tell him I am only doing what I hope someone else would do for me. He says he understands and gets up with his things to sit somewhere out of range of the bomb he is sure will explode at any moment.

The first man comes back and I can't resist telling him he is on the unofficial Logan Airport Watchlist. He laughs at that and I offer him a pretzel. He says no thanks, he is going to meet some friends for happy hour in Phoenix and he can't wait to be out of this terrible weather. He is wearing sandals too but they look less soggy than mine. We talk about our travel plans. He asks what I do and I tell him I am a musician. This is only partly true but I almost never tell strangers the whole story. They don't care that I studied architecture and philosophy and Classics in school and now teach English and French to teenagers and Byzantine chant to adults. Instead I choose one of those variables, the most fitting, and leave the rest for another day. Today I am a music teacher and I just sang in a concert. He says his mother is a music teacher too and I wonder what other five things she does.

He leaves and I wait a few more hours and dry out and warm up and am really ready to go home.  Takeoff is postponed twice and when we finally take our seats I am grateful. I order a gin and tonic and when the flight attendant doesn't charge me I feel smug and secure in my insider knowledge that free drinks follow delays. Then he returns with a machine and says that will be eight dollars and I fish my credit card out of my bag and think, maybe next time.

A woman two rows back behind me on the plane is talking to the girl next to her. The woman's voice is piercing, not loud but piercing and I can't ignore it. I shoot her a couple of dirty looks but she doesn't see them or doesn't care.  I put in earplugs and that helps a little bit. I can still hear her. The tall flight attendant from Trinidad kneels to talk to the soccer coach in front of me. He is inches from my face and has a deep voice and long braids and he doesn't bother me at all. I like hearing his bass voice and I can also block it out but that woman behind me is awful.

I think, what a fun weekend and what a lousy trip home. Traveling is for people like Hemingway who can experience these things and turn them right around into poignant anecdotes and be none the worse for wear. I have fun trying those shoes on every so often but really, I'd rather be safe and warm somewhere than building character in this uncomfortable seat.

Paris Top 10: Walking

What will you find when you go on a walk in Paris? 

DSCN5876.JPG

An interplay of light and shadow in an airy hall, far more interesting than the dubiously-titled art on its walls; and the company of a beloved sister, far more valuable.

IMG_1614.JPG

The source of a favorite album. A riff on a favorite cocktail. 

DSCN5589.JPG

A daydream about snapping winds and foamy seas, wrought in thin spires of bronzed fancy. 

DSCN5615.JPG

Tiny explosions of color and chlorophyll, waiting to beautify a room or a corner or just a passing glance.

DSCN6336.JPG

A temple to a man that accidentally, in dizzying golden heights and shafts of warm piercing sunshine, honors God instead.

IMG_1506.jpg

A place that begs questioning, if only you were brave enough to stop for the answer.

DSCN6049.JPG

A new friend: adoring, persistent and soft around the edges.

IMG_0945.jpg

A gateway into another place, another time. 

IMG_1486.jpg

A bracing remedy for whatever ails you.

IMG_1742.jpg

A symphony of pattern, texture and composition that welcomes you with glass drums and trumpets of steel and, with soft undulating wood-paneled woodwinds, begs you to return and explore it again: on foot, as it was meant to be seen.

You will. 


Becoming Lebanese

Last summer a group of friends at the SMI was staying up way, way too late drinking wine and unloading after a long day of teaching and learning.  They invited me to join, but no sooner had I settled in than one friend decided it was time for bed. He began saying goodbyes, and I began laying on the guilt: 

"You're leaving? I just got here!" (It was after midnight.)

"We never have any time to talk!" (Patently false.)

 "Why do you hate me?" (If your Middle Eastern do not habitually play this histrionic trump card, you must not really be friends. It's a staple of the culture, as common as "keep a stiff upper lip" to the British.)

This last line prompted an outburst of laughter from all the Arabs present, which was just about everyone but me; one of them dubbed me an honorary Lebanese on the spot.  Defeated, my tired friend stayed another half an hour and then asked for my permission to retire.

Of course my real attraction to the Lebanese culture is not the guilt but the food. Last Pascha Rob surprised* me with the gift of this incredible book, which contains over 500 (!) traditional recipes and modern updates. It's a work of art, full of gorgeous photographs, and I enjoyed leafing through it for several weeks until the summer began. Then we hit a whirlwind of travel: we were gone 6 weeks out of 8, with mere days at home between trips. We finally arrived home on the cusp of the Dormition Fast, ready to stay put for awhile, and I was itching to start cooking for myself again after gracing the interior of far too many good and bad restaurants.

Here's the thing about fasting: it should be simple. Eat less, give more -- to God, to the church, to others. That's it. Instead, it becomes a chore. Reading labels. Planning exit strategies for social events. Trying to think of an allowed meal that sounds appetizing and contains something healthful. I hit Fasting Fatigue early and often during Lent and Advent, and this usually leads to breaking the fast or resenting the fast, or both.

So on July 31, I picked out a few traditional Lebanese recipes I wanted to try. All were fast-friendly (vegan) and fairly easy to make, if a little time-consuming: the fresh ingredients meant that a lot of chopping and pureeing was involved, though each dish was elemental in its simplicity. 

I was overjoyed, as I finished each one, to find it tasted exactly as it did at the best Middle Eastern restaurants (of which none exists in this area, and believe me, I have tried them all.)  At the end of two days I had a fridge full of healthy meals that were easy to prepare and so delicious I wouldn't even think of straying. We ate dips made from eggplant, chickpeas and walnuts; salad with lemony garlic dressing and pita croutons; and olives and pickled turnips, twice a day for a week. Then it was gone and we had to make more, only this time we added falafel, fried cauliflower, tahini sauce, tabbouli, preserved-lemon dressing and semolina almond cake, and doubled everything in honor of my mother's birthday. Over a dozen people crowded my house, each one effusive in praise of the amazing food, and the recipes were so straightforward I couldn't even try to take credit.

I didn't miss meat, not once. As much as I wanted to try the grape leaves with cinnamon-laced beef, raw lamb with spices and thick, creamy yogurt dip, I was perfectly happy with what I had made, the other 80% of the Lebanese canon. And it got me thinking about fasting and community. Saydeh touched on this in her comments about Holy Week (buried midway through this piece -- good luck!) When everyone is eating the same things, there are no pins and needles about cooking for guests or choosing what to eat at a host's table. And when the food is naturally, wonderfully simple, fasting becomes the norm; days when meat or dairy is allowed seem like a luxury.

We noticed this about our friend who is a priest in Southeast Asia and also a fabulous cook; most of his favorite recipes are based on vegetables and tofu, seasoned with a wide variety of aromatics and spicy sauces. When he's eating meat, he might throw in some chicken or beef, but tofu alone is delicious because it's allowed to be tofu -- it's not trying to be a hamburger. American food is just stubbornly unadaptable: all our traditional favorites (hot dogs, sandwiches, ice cream, pizza) are not only generally unhealthy, but also unpalatable without cheese and meat. Ever tried a veggie sub? Bread and sliced raw vegetables. As asetic and pitiful as it sounds.

Last year I fell into the habit of grabbing something small to eat during the school day -- yogurt, fruit, a boiled egg -- and eating my main meal of the day in the afternoon when I returned home and had access to my whole kitchen and pantry. So on Friday I had some nuts and fruit at school and came home to fattoush, hummus and mahamra. Then Rob mixed up ground beef, rice and spices and we rolled over a hundred grape leaves. We brought a few to the house of some close friends to enjoy, nightfall bringing the start of a non-fasting day, and in our conversation they pointed out the crux of what I'm getting at here. Not that the whole world should convert to a Middle Eastern diet (I wish!) but that being part of a traditional community makes fasting not only doable but enjoyable. 

Next on my journey to becoming Lebanese: discovering what magic they can work with chicken. And a very pleasant Advent fast.

*I may have ordered and paid for it myself, but I promised to give him credit. That counts, right?

 

The Experience of Holy Week

Every so often, my habit of scrupulously proofreading my e-mails gets me into trouble. Last winter, when we were in the thick of planning this year's Sacred Music Institute, our director Paul asked for Holy Week pieces we use at our parishes. I ignored the first request, because I consider myself the low man on the totem pole in a field full of professional musicians and lifelong Orthodox. But when he started to shake the bushes again, I sent him a few of my favorites, along with a paragraph about each hymn explaining why it was significant to me.

He never responded, so I figured he had enough pieces and didn't need mine. But when the schedule came out months later, I was shocked to see my name next to the first General Session, called "The Experience of Holy Week." I asked him what in the world he wanted me to say. "Oh," he said, "Remember that great e-mail you wrote me a while back? I want to hear more of that." 

The journey from e-mail to lecture was a strange one. With every paragraph, I wondered whether what I had to say would be useful or even interesting to the highly-qualified audience of the SMI. Eventually I just had to say a prayer that God would use my words, and then re-read and re-edit it again. (the final edit took place on the drive there. Thanks, Mom!) 

Since I was hoping only not to embarrass myself and / or put my audience to sleep, I was surprised and humbled by the reaction to my story. It's not an amazing story, but I think that people were able to relate it to their own experiences of Holy Week -- family and friends, priests and choirs, struggles and joys -- and thus my story became theirs. Ours. Several of my friends asked for a copy, so I'm posting it below. Glory to God.

Habits and Holiness

Eight posts in the last six months. My, how the wordy have fallen!

Sometime during these months of silence, I started thinking about my life, which is incredibly blessed in many ways and kind of a mess in others. Since it's much more depressing to think about the messy parts, that's what I've been doing -- and coming to some odd conclusions.

For instance: I don't have any habits.

Really. None. I don't get up at the same time every morning. I don't always brush my teeth before I go to bed. I don't eat regular meals, walk the dog, play with the cat or clean the house or read books on any kind of a regular basis. I do each of these things as the moment strikes me, or when they absolutely need to be done to avoid disease or debt or embarrassment or all three.

Now you know the sad truth. I laid it bare, along with many other sad and true facts about myself, in confession just before Christmas. I told my spiritual father that I wanted to have a more ordered life, and that I knew the first step in ordering my life was ordering my soul. I asked him to help me to really, actually start living like a Christian.

"Well," he said. "Do you want to get a pen and paper?"

These words thrilled my organizational heart of hearts, and eagerly I took notes as he reviewed the three main supports of a holy life. Prayer: morning, evening, intercessions, reading Scripture. Fasting: more time with God, which means less indulgence in food and television and, hopefully, sinful behavior. Almsgiving: donating money, but also time, energy and resources, to those in need. We talked about visiting monasteries, praying before and after Communion, taking time for silence. 

Of course I know I need to do these things. Christ speaks clearly about each one in the Gospels, and from my youth I have, not obeyed them, but fumbled in their direction. So what is stopping me from going deeper, from attaining what God Himself commands -- that I be perfect, as He is?

And so the last directive, though the simplest of all, was the most revelatory. My spiritual father encouraged me to return to confession soon, but also to confess often on a much smaller scale: examine each day's failings, ask forgiveness where necessary, and try again tomorrow. Examine each week as a whole before going, with a penitent heart, to Communion. Confronting my sins on a relentlessly regular basis, he explained, ensures they will return with less frequency.

In thinking about it later, I realized that to get better at anything (French, singing, throwing a Frisbee, making curry sauce) I need both practice and coaching. And so, to accomplish theosis -- to become like God -- I need to practice shedding my baser instincts and embracing the cross. So that, instead of two steps forward and one step back (or, as is more common, the other way around,) I can start to see real change in my soul, and in my life.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess so that you know I haven't really been silent all these months. I just haven't been ready to say this until now. So thank you, for waiting for me.

Our Christmas Card: The Extended Version

The first couple of days of Christmas break are always wasted in a flurry of movie-watching, cookie-baking and snuggling with furry things on the couch (blankets, animals, unshaven husbands.) Suddenly, on Christmas eve, I realized we hadn't done Christmas cards. I half thought of scrapping it, since we'd been good about it for our first ten Christmases, but I realized what I said last year is still true: I like the whole process, the hassle of changing addresses and names and the fun of scribbling little notes by hand and the nice finished product at the end -- a pile of pretty stamped envelopes waiting to join our friends all over the country.

So, those are on their way to you, and meanwhile, for those of you who really want a play-by-play, here's what we've been up to this year:

First, we had a lot more work to do with our two new end-of-2011 projects: dog and kitchen. It took me a very, very long time to get used to having Mishka in the house, but I do enjoy her company, as well as the protection she offers me from burglars, the UPS man and umbrellas. (Bubble wrap, however, is a different story. If bubble wrap ever broke into the house, she would hide in the corner while it made off with all the valuables.)

Looking for things to sniff.

She also forces us to get outside more, which is definitely a good thing, as she has an endless capacity for running, sniffing and chasing. On one recent foray in the woods near our house, I enjoyed calling her back with a whistle: I would hear nothing, then a very faint rustle growing louder as she trampled through the fallen leaves coming toward me. The last time I called her back, however, the rustling grew louder and louder until I saw, with much alarm, half a dozen deer charge over the crest of the hill in front of me, on high alert with tails up. A hundred yards behind them was Mishka, having the time of her life.

Snow is like crack for dogs, apparently.

She loves the snow, but unfortunately, this little dusting was it for the year until this week. Thankfully, we got in a visit to our dear friends in Colorado and saw some real snow, along with real mountains, trees and blue skies (you think we have these things on the East Coast, but you're so wrong!)

Mountains, Gandalf!
Mountains, Gandalf!

Spring brought more raised beds and another attempt at filling them with our favorite heirloom varieties. Unfortunately, our summer traveling always interferes with the crucial work of watering and harvesting, but we still got quite a few tomatoes, beans, berries, carrots, beets and greens, plus all the fresh herbs we could handle!

White on White
White on White

Some pretty flowers, too, especially in the spring -- and yes, we still have the cat, and yes, she tolerates the dog who wants so badly to be friends with her.

Church is a constant source of peace and healing for us amid the stresses and trials of everyday life. I am grateful for my job as protopsalti, training and leading the other chanters; it keeps me connected to the community of Holy Cross, and to the Cross itself, eliminating the possibility of intruding busy-ness. We had a beautiful Lent, Holy Week and Pascha this year, including this lovely flower-covered bier with which we processed around the church on Holy Friday, commemorating the Lord's death and looking ahead to the promise of His Resurrection.

Bier in church?!

Bier in church?!

In the late spring, Rob and his dad, along with some friends, rode in Bike New York -- a a 42-mile ride that spanned all five boroughs and gave them some great views and an even greater workout. My mother-in-law and I happily tagged along for shopping, dining and a beautiful visit to the new Ground Zero park.

Giant waterfalls outline the footprints of the original Twin Towers, surrounded by a peaceful tree-lined arcade. The names of the fallen inspire personal tributes like this one.

Giant waterfalls outline the footprints of the original Twin Towers, surrounded by a peaceful tree-lined arcade. The names of the fallen inspire personal tributes like this one.

Then we turned right around and went the opposite direction, to beautiful New Orleans for a weekend filled with sunny weather, beautiful music and way too much good food. We also enjoyed a visit to nearby St. Francisville to spend time with some dear friends who took us out for crawfish and stopped for cracklins on the way home (that comment about too much good food? I really meant it.)

New Orleans may be Party Central for most, but to me it's more a place of peace than anything else. The people we meet, the cocktails we toast with, and the streets we walk are all infused with a quiet, refined grace that trickles down into the days and weeks following our return. I couldn't ever get enough of the place.

Trees

Almost as soon as we returned from these trips, and as we were wrapping up the school year, I ended my 21-year academic career by walking the stage at Loyola University to receive a Master of Arts in Teaching along with a Secondary English teaching certification. In other words, after ten years of private instruction and seven in the classroom, I am finally, officially, a teacher.

At last!

At last!

As the school year ended, I signed a contract making the leap to full-time employment; I would have my own classroom for the first time, as well as increased administrative and supervisory duties. I was a little nervous about this, but Rob assured me it was not all that different from what I had already been doing as a part-time instructor. He's still full-time at the college level, teaching design courses to diverse classes that include both starry-eyed teenagers and professionals older than he is. One of the biggest perks of his job is that every other year or so, he gets to run a travel study program in Paris!

Monmartre at twilight: Ooh, la la.
Monmartre at twilight: Ooh, la la.

Like any good husband (and he is the very best) he brings along his French-speaking wife so she can enjoy herself and help him out of Metro limbo when necessary. This year we ventured further south of the city on our days off, seeing some incredible chateaus in the Loire valley.

One of countless spectacular views!

One of countless spectacular views!

(For more about our travels in Paris, I invite you to read my Top Ten series. Loyal readers (all four of you) will notice that not all of the ten pieces are published yet, but please enjoy what's there and I promise to finish soon!

Upon returning, we hosted a huge, fancy dinner in honor of Bastille Day, featuring five French courses paired with hand-selected American wines. The most prestigious Louisianan journalists all covered the story.

We spent time at the ocean as the summer ended, and also attended three beautiful weddings -- a longtime friend of mine in a three-part French-Indian extravaganza, a longtime friend of Rob's in a sweet homegrown ceremony on a farm, and a cousin's eclectic celebration in some local ruins:

Wedding.jpg

School began again this fall, and with my increased class load, I made the difficult decision to stop teaching private piano lessons. My students were an important part of my life for nearly ten years, and it was hard to say goodbye, but I know they will be successful elsewhere: several have transferred to my mom's studio and are already making great progress. Meanwhile, I've enjoyed teaching a French class in addition to the English that makes up the bulk of my workload. I credit Rosetta Stone with my quick recall of vocabulary I learned when I was my students' age! 

We've made time for lots of fun weekend trips this semester, too: besides the weddings, we also took in a couple of concerts and enjoyed the stately beauty of Williamsburg with our family. And a friendship that began at the summer Sacred Music Institutes took me to Boston for two weekends in a row, to rehearse and record as part of Charlie Marge's Boston Byzantine Choir. I was so honored and humbled to be a part of the incredible musicianship and camaraderie of this group, and we enjoyed quality time with our Boston friends in my free time. They call this the "Hahbuh."

Harbor.jpg

We were out of town so much this fall that I'm afraid I was a bad mother to this blog. I hope this New Year will bring some more stability, but I also have to blame social networks for some of that: although Facebook's time-sucking capabilities have kept me away so far, I have enjoyed the simple beauty of sharing photos via Instagram (in fact, many from this letter were originally published there; it's a nice backup in case, say, your hard drive crashes when your laptop falls off the couch and your last month or so of data is unrecoverable.) I've also enjoyed reviewing restaurants on Yelp, and as one of their Elite members I get to attend fun events around town. You can check out the content on the left-hand sidebars, and if you share either hobby, please look me up!

And now, having celebrated the glorious Nativity of Christ with a late-night festal Liturgy, and having feasted and clinked glasses and given gifts and sung and laughed, we prepare for an end-of-year gathering with family and friends to do more of the same -- and we wish you as much peace and joy as can fit into your hearts.

Crabby Christmas.jpg

Merry Christmas from Baltimore!

Love, Emily and Rob

Back Into the World

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

She stood perfectly still, her pale skin smooth except around her eyes, where she squinted up at the ceiling for a moment. "What motivates you?"

"Whoo!" I blew through pursed lips, laughed nervously, buying some time. "Like . . . in general?"

"Yeah."

"When I'm dealing with my anxiety disorder? Or just all the time?"

Her hands found each other, fiddled for a moment. "It's just that you seem so . . . enthusiastic. All the time. How do you get out of bed every morning? What makes you do it?"

I looked at her and saw myself, the day she was born. The same curiosity tempered by a desire to fit in. The same searching look that scared away most of the boys I liked. The same deep-seated, unfounded fears. It wasn't so long ago.

"I love literature," I said. "I didn't study it much in college, but I've always loved to read, and I genuinely enjoy that part of my job -- talking about stories, getting into the hows and whys. And I think enthusiasm is contagious, so I try to be enthusiastic for my students because it makes learning more fun for them. Beyond that --"

I paused. Suddenly there was nothing to say, and way too much, all at once.

"I know I'm not the best teacher. But I think God has given me some gifts, and I want to use them as best I can. My vocation is to be a teacher and wife, just like yours is to be a student and daughter. Have you ever read Tolstoy?"

She shook her head.

"He has this great story called 'Three Questions.' This king spends his whole life looking for the answers to three questions: What is the most important thing? What is the most important person? What is the most important time?"

She nodded. She was listening.

"In the end, he finds out that it's all based on the present. The most important person is whomever God has placed in front of you, and the most important  thing is to do good for that person. And the most important time -- really, the only time -- is now. Do the best you can with now. If now is your brother sitting next to you in the back seat and he's driving you crazy --" 

Here she smiled. "I know," I said. "Your brother is only a baby."

"No, I have another one," she said. "In middle school."

"Okay, then. That brother in the car -- at that moment, God is calling you to be kind to him, to love him. That's your job. It's actually very simple. But we don't think about it that way often enough."

She nodded again. I realized how still she was, her hands at her sides, her face a little puffy with fatigue. I hoped I wasn't boring her. 

"You know," I said, extending my arms to encompass the desks, posters, walls, building, "All this is nothing. In the end, you won't remember any of it. Even your grades -- I know they are SO IMPORTANT to you right now -- you won't even remember what they were. But you will remember whether people treated you with kindness. And they will remember that about you. We just have to trust God that the hard stuff is there for a reason. Who knows: maybe the reason I struggled with anxiety for so many years was just so I could be here now, with you, to let you know it will get better and you will be a stronger person for it. Don't worry about the future: just trust God that whatever you have to do today is the exact right thing for you to do today. And that today is the only time to do it."

She was quiet, thinking. "How's that for a long answer?" I laughed. "Serves you right for asking an English teacher."

"Thank you," she said. "That helps."

"I'm glad." I gave her a hug -- and sent her back into the world.

Glory to God for All Things

What do you do when you lose your family, possessions and livelihood in one terrible day? If you're Job, you resist the impulse to write country music and instead give glory to God, who blesses you with even more than you lost.

Roughly two thousand years later, another dedicated servant of the Lord was dying in exile from the empire he had struggled to evangelize all his life. St. John Chrysostom, with his final breath, praised his creator: "Glory to God for All Things!"

Another millenium and a half after that, a Russian priest composed a beautiful Akathist, a sort of prayer poem, based upon those words:

When the lightning flash has lit up the camp dining hall, how feeble seems the light from the lamp. Thus dost Thou, like the lightning, unexpectedly light up my heart with flashes of intense joy. After Thy blinding light, how drab, how colourless, how illusory all else seems. My souls clings to Thee.

He knew whereof he spoke: the "camp dining hall" was at a Communist prison camp where Fr. Gregory Petrov, after numerous tortures, died in 1940. From hearing the hymn, you would never guess at the circumstances under which it was written. We sing it every year on the eve of Thanksgiving, and every year I find some new nugget of wisdom to treasure in my heart:

Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness, when all the world is hidden from our eyes.
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others.
Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy; Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom.
Glory to Thee, building Thy Church, a haven of peace in a tortured world.

Glory to Thee for the humbleness of the animals that serve me. (This one always makes me smile. Clearly, Fr. Gregory Petrov never owned a cat.)

This morning I am mindful of the "endless variety of colors, tastes and scents" as I assemble a salad, stuff a squash, cook down a whole bag of onions into a tiny caramelized pile (for transcendence, just add bacon, bourbon and brown sugar -- oh, Bittman!) and try not to eat ALL of the cookies I baked yesterday. It may seem small compared to what else is going [wrong] in the world, but our God gives beauty in abundance, even to the tiniest moments.

Most of all, I am mindful of the "love of parents, the faithfulness of friends." What friends you all are, especially for calling and writing and grabbing my arm to ask where I've been and why I haven't written. There is no reason besides the busy-ness of life. I thank God for this blog, one of the few relationships I have that doesn't inspire guilt when I let it go temporarily. When I pick it up again it feels just like an old friend. Just like you.

Happy Thanksgiving.